BJP struggles to find unified voice
Can India's main opposition party combine pro-Hindu sentiment with populist policies?
Last Modified: 14 Apr 2009 08:03 GMT

The BJP has had to soft-pedal its pro-Hindu agenda to maintain the support of its allies [EPA]

In a crowded tent at the Bharatiya Janata Party's headquarters in New Delhi, leader Lal Krishna Advani unveils the party's manifesto for the upcoming elections.

As the 81-year-old politician from India's main opposition party speaks to the assembled reporters in his distinctive, raspy voice, it becomes clear that the decision to hold the event on the anniversary of the birth of the Hindu deity Ram is no coincidence.

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While the party platform contains populist promises of cheaper food for the poor, jobs for the country's youth and money to keep girls in school, there is also a renewed and potentially controversial pledge to build a temple at Ram's birthplace in the north Indian city of Ayodha on ground where the 16th century Babri mosque once stood.
It is an issue close to Advani's heart, but one that historian Mahesh Rangarajan says limits its appeal among voters and the potential of regaining power after its surprising loss to the Indian Congress in the 2004 general elections.

"The BJP has done reasonably well in recent state votes, but they need to hold on to their core," says Rangarajan.

"How do they do that while reaching out beyond that core? They're really trying to do two different things at one time and it's very difficult to succeed at that."

Communal violence

Back in 1990, Advani travelled the length and breadth of India whipping up support for the party's plan to construct a temple at the Ayodha site. It culminated in violent scenes there with the destruction of the mosque by Hindu supporters, followed by some of India's worst communal violence since partition.


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That campaign may have polarised the country, but it galvanised the BJP faithful and helped the party increase its number of seats in the subsequent election, and, ultimately, to gain power in 1998.

Many of the foot soldiers in the battle for a temple at Ayodha were members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Officially, the RSS is a cultural organisation with no ties to the BJP, but is ranks have supplied most of the party's top leaders and almost all of its cadres are supporters.

Recently, hundreds of RSS members in their trademark brown shorts and biege shirts rallied in the capital New Delhi. As they marched about the parade ground, Ram Madhav, the group's spokesman, explained why many members are also taking an active role again in this election campaign.

"The average RSS member is not very happy with the present government on issues like terrorism and rising food prices," Madhav said.

"So, naturally, he's looking for a better alternative which he finds in the BJP."

Ideological identity

At the outset of its six-year stint ruling the country under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then prime minister, the party moved quickly to test the country's nuclear weapons capability, an act that made India a diplomatic and trade pariah, but one that was popular at home.

The BJP is conscious of the age of its prime ministerial candidate [EPA]
The BJP won the 1999 elections, but it was still a minority government. The party was forced to soft pedal its pro-Hindu agenda in order to retain the support of its more moderate allies in government.

Despite a buoyant economy, the BJP lost to Congress in the 2004 polls. Its "India Shining" campaign slogan failed to resonate with voters, something party leaders are still grappling to understand.

"The quality of life was better. India was much secure. Yet, we lost," recalls Ravi Shankar Prasad, a BJP national executive member.

"Maybe our core supporters wanted something more in terms of our ideological preferences."

This may explain why the party is once again stressing its traditional values in the lead up to this year's vote.

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